Winter hangs tight this year. Late March resembles late January. Days lengthen, but snow does not fade. Migrating birds push north but hold, now, to the south, like a rising river pushing against the banks. The sun lifts higher; late afternoon brings warmth; one is tempted to bask in a lawn chair in the lee of the breeze, but the lawn chairs are buried ‘neath the snow.
I took snowshoes out a week ago. Deep snow; cloudy morning. It was 5 above with a chill wind from the north and west, and the snow was deep. Thought to myself, “Dang, I’m not warming up very fast.” I walked into the wind and felt the cold of a month gone by now, felt the cold of January. The calendar showed March but the day looked like January, felt like January; only thing was we had more snow than we’d had in January, more snow by a lot.
I warmed up with time and effort; felt better in the shelter of the woods where the wind did not reach. It was tough going. I saw deer, a pair of them in the thinner snow under thick pine. They watched me; they stood still, then grew uneasy and ran. I walked on, snowshoes punching through the snow.
I walked to an open marsh. The marsh was quiet and barren, and the occasional spike of a dead tree stood tall and stark. A small creek runs through the middle, slowed by a beaver dam long abandoned. Old timers tell of a time now long past when the creek ran fast and clear over sand bottom; it held trout then, say the old timers.
Now the creek is slowed and runs over mud, all covered this late winter by ice. The trout are gone. I follow the course, see otter track, see where they lope and walk and then slide. There are places where they have broken ice; the rank, strong scent of muck and swamp rise in the cold air.
I never see the otters, see very little else; head back to the truck after an hour and a half, and the warm air blasts from the heater and feels very good.
A week later, another morning but now 30 degrees warmer. I drive the truck to where the snowplow has stopped, park there in banked snow; tires spin for traction and I have a sharp question rise: Do I have a shovel in case I need to dig out?
I let the question lie unanswered; leave the consequences for later, pull out the wide skis, the backcountry skis, built for deep snow. I load camera gear in pack, wrap pole straps around my wrists and push off.
My skis do not sink in the deep snow; there is a hint of crust to the snow and it bears the weight of skis and skier both. And that has changed this week. This week, the snow has begun to settle under the warm afternoon. The top layer of snow has begun to soften and change from crystal to liquid and now, after a cool night, to solid.
This is the sign of change in snow; this is the sign of the end of time for this snow. Warm days, cold nights, crust forms. Another warm day; snow takes weight in the burden of liquid changed from crystal; settles further. Each day dawns on crust; each dusk casts shadows on less snow. Change comes.
It is the same combination that drives maple sap to rise from the frozen ground, to flow from root to trunk to branch. That rise and fall of temperature is March’s rhythm, a crazy beat, a strange graph. Sap rises; snow forms a crust; season changes.
I ski a quarter-mile and reach the frozen river. There is no sign of open water in the side channel in front of me, but when I turn to the left and look upriver, I can see a thin line of black: water. I turn and ski in that direction. The crust over ice is firm enough; I do not break through.
I ski a quarter-mile or less and come to open water. The water is very dark under a sky of dark cloud. The river runs against the far bank then splits and the one branch, the one I skied on, lies white and frozen. The far branch, the far side of the split, is open.
Upriver from where I stand is a jumble of broken ice along the banks. The open water runs the middle. As far as I can see, upriver to where it turns, the side I am on is white with ice, but ice in turmoil, ice in crisis. Some has fractured and huge slabs lie tilted to the water; it as if my driveway or backyard has broken off and now lies angled down. A thin ledge of flat ice hugs the bank. Other pieces have broken free and the current carries them. The white snow tops the ice floats as a sail lofts above a boat.
I ski slowly now, cautiously. I slide along the upper edges of slabs of ice that lie angled steep to the moving water. I edge the skis for grip. A slip here and I’d slide to the water. The water is not deep here, but it flows over rock and it is still very cold.
The sky is still cloudy; the day is warming but has a feel of gloom to it. I take my time, work my way along the river on the broken ice, metal edges of the skis digging deep.
I ski for perhaps a mile along the river. I see track in the snow: fox and coyote and turkey and otter. I see small plates of clear ice, clear as a window pane; shattered along the shore. I see aged track of animal etched in ice slab that is tilted nearly vertical. I see rock, solid and unmoving, topped with ice and snow as if a lopsided cap.
In time, I turn back and retrace my tracks. I ski now in the direction of the river’s flow, but the river moves faster and with more abandon and less caution than I. I listen to the sound of the water as it runs free from the coat of ice. I know that there is deep snow in the woods and I also know that in the sound of the river running is the sound of season change.
I turn from the river and ski up out of the river valley to where oak and pine stand high against the cloudy sky. The snow still has enough backbone to support me. By afternoon, it will soften under the rising temperature and the crust will turn from ice to wet snow and settle deeper. Come sundown, it will harden again and in the morning it will hold weight again. I can ski on that crust and it is one of my most favorite things to do.
I start the truck; tires spin. I rock the truck forward and back. It breaks free, no shovel needed. I drive home and unload my gear and Sally says I’ve gotten a phone call. A friend is tapping maple trees and could use a hand. The same dynamics that make crust snow drives the sap to rise.
I drive out of town, to a place where maple trees stand, pull out snowshoes and hike back into the maples. We drill trees, drive taps, hang metal buckets. The sun begins to break out of cloud; the snow begins to soften. And if you look just right at the tap in the maple tree, you can see the tiny drop of sap show and hold like a diamond in the sun, then fall. And if you are close enough, you can hear the sound of the drop of sap in the metal bucket: ting! And in that fragile sound, you know all you need to know about the end of winter and the coming of spring.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.